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6 Tricks Online Degree Programs Use to Appear More Affordable


Online universities, unlike traditional colleges, don’t need to pay for buildings, so they should represent a fairly cheap online degree alternative, right?Online University Cost of College Credits

Not necessarily.

Some online degree programs are, in fact, more expensive than traditional schools—but in this age of rising college costs some distance universities are deliberately misleading students into believing they offer the cheapest online degree.

Here are six online university cost tricks and scams you may encounter in comparing online degree programs. Don’t be fooled by them!

Understanding the difference between semester and quarter credits can save you thousands on your total tuition bill.

What are Online Semester Course Credits?

Most traditional residential colleges operate on a semester system. An online semester lasts fifteen weeks, with courses meeting at least three hours per week. Semester-based colleges require a minimum of 120 semester credits for a bachelors degree.

However, some universities—including many for-profit online schools—use quarter systems and quarter credits.

What are Online Quarter Course Credits?

Adult learners like shorter classes. An online quarter of instruction traditionally lasts only 10 weeks or less. Quarter-based universities require more total credits—180 quarter credits—for a bachelors degree.

Consumer Alert: Some online schools advertise in large print the amount they charge “per credit” — while keeping hidden the fact they require more total credits to earn a degree.

Most for-profit online colleges use quarter systems or credits, which allows them quicker cash turn-around by letting them bill for tuition every three months (quarterly), rather than every six months (semester system).

Be a savvy consumer: read the fine print to determine whether your online college is quoting its tuition cost per SEMESTER credit or per QUARTER credit.

Why Bother Calculating Online University Cost?

A bachelors degree from an online school charging $100 per semester credit costs (120 x $100) = $12,000

A bachelor’s degree from an online school charging $100 per quarter credit costs (180 x $100) = $18,000

The online education cost savings: $6,000!

Consult GetEducated’s Best Buy online college affordability rankings to discover the true “average” cost for any specific type of degree you seek.  

Different academic schools within the same online college often charge drastically different tuition and fee rates.

For example, business schools tend to charge the highest tuition and fees (costs) for business and technology degrees. Education schools, on the other hand, tend to offer comparably cheap online degrees.


At some schools, distance learning fees can cost as much as—or more than—course tuition.

Find out how much you will be expected to spend in online fees. Then add this number to the cost of your course tuition to arrive at the total sticker price. 

A few of the fees online degree programs may tack to your overall tuition bill include: technology fee, distance learning fee, student services fee, application fee, transcript review fee, out-of-state fee, instructional assistance fee, credit for career experience fee, testing fee, records assessment fee, transcript fee, and library fee. 

Consumer Alert: The “fee” schedules at state colleges with online degrees can be especially puzzling. Many state university tuition rates—that is, instructional course rates—are set annually by the state legislature. Universities can’t legally charge more for “tuition.”  But they can legally charge more for “fees.”  For this reason public online schools tend to pile “fees” on top of tuition. Looking only at the “tuition rate” will not yield an accurate cost assessment.

In an effort to make the cost of every online degree more transparent, publishes both the tuition and fees for each online school in our distance degree directory. We then publish the total estimated cost of the degree once tuition and fees are totaled. This estimated total sticker price will help you more clearly compare the true cost of any one distance degree to another.

Bachelor completion programs are those that cover the last two years of a four year degree; students are expected to complete the first two years elsewhere.

Too often, online universities offering bachelor completion programs publish a flat-rate tuition—such as $15,000—for the entire online bachelors degree. However, this flat fee is the cost for the last two years only, not for all four years of a bachelors degree.  

Read the fine print. If a college tells you its bachelors degree only costs $15,000, check to see if the advertised degree is a “degree completion” program.

If it is, keep in mind that the quoted flat fee only covers the last two years of the online degree. You will still have to pay for your first two years from another school.

One year may cost $12,000—but if it’s a two-year program (associate degree), the total degree cost will be $24,000, not $12,000. If it’s a four-year program (bachelors degree), the total degree cost will be $48,000, not $12,000.

Check your chosen college’s website carefully to make sure you understand what any price quote includes—or excludes.

If you’ve taken college courses elsewhere, you’ve paid money and spent time obtaining those college course credits. Always attempt to maximize the transfer of your old courses or college credits. Maximizing credit transfer is one of the best money-saving tools at your disposal. 

If your new online college denies you the right to transfer old courses or college credits, then you will have lost a lot of money and educational time, and you will have to spend MORE money and time with your new school to gain additional credits.

Online colleges typically publish their credit transfer policies. But don’t look for this level of detail on the university’s admissions website. Dig deeper by downloading the college’s full catalog. The catalog should describe in detail your chosen college’s transfer credit polices.

Some colleges may not fully accept online semester credits that were earned more than 10 years ago; credits earned in the military for work experience; or credits earned from nationally accredited rather than regionally accredited degree programs. Check every potential new college’s credit transfer policies to locate your most favorable deal.

If you are denied transfer course credits, ask about the “academic petition process.” You may be able to petition your new college to accept more of your old credits than they initially say they are willing to accept.


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